Two Democrats have asked the FBI to open a criminal investigation into Donald Trump over a phone call in which he pressured Georgia state officials to overturn the presidential election in his favour.
The US president berated and begged Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s top election official, to “find” enough votes to reverse Joe Biden’s victory in the state, according to an audio recording made public on Sunday.
The revelation prompted fierce debate over whether the call violated federal statutes that prohibit interference in elections. Ted Lieu of California and Kathleen Rice of New York, in the House of Representatives, demanded a case be opened.
“As members of Congress and former prosecutors, we believe Donald Trump engaged in solicitation of, or conspiracy to commit, a number of election crimes,” they wrote to FBI director Christopher Wray. “We ask you to open an immediate criminal investigation into the president.”
Under US law, it is a crime to “knowingly and willfully” deprive voters of a free or fair election. Eric Holder, a former attorney general, tweeted: “As you listen to the tape consider this federal criminal statute.”
During the hour-long call on Saturday, Trump asserted disproven claims of fraud and raised the vague prospect of a “criminal offence” if the Georgia secretary of state and other officials did not change the certified vote count.
“All I want to do is this,” the president said. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.”
Raffensperger, a Republican, pointed out that Georgia counted its votes three times before certifying Biden’s win by 11,779 votes. “President Trump, we’ve had several lawsuits, and we’ve had to respond in court to the lawsuits and the contentions,” he said. “We don’t agree that you have won.”
Trump insisted: “I won this election by hundreds of thousands of votes. There’s no way I lost Georgia.” He pushed conspiracy theories circulating in rightwing media, including that hundreds of thousands of ballots mysteriously appeared in Fulton county, which includes Atlanta. Officials have said there is no evidence of this.
Interviewed on ABC, Raffensperger said: “It was pretty obvious pretty early on that we’d debunked every one of those theories early on but President Trump continues to believe them.”
The White House had reportedly made 18 attempts to call Raffensperger during the past two months before he relented. Raffensperger said he did so against his better judgment.
“He did most of the talking, we did most of the listening,” he said. “But I do want to make my points that the data that he has is just plain wrong. He had hundreds and hundreds of people he said that were dead that voted. We found two. That’s an example of just his bad data.”
Asked if he considered Trump’s request to be lawful, the secretary of state replied: “I’m not a lawyer. All I know is that we’re gonna follow the law, follow the process. Truth matters, and we’ve been fighting these rumours for the last two months.”
Trump may have violated Georgia state laws by soliciting election fraud. Raffensperger said: “I understand that the Fulton county district attorney wants to look at it. Maybe that’s the appropriate venue for it to go.”
State law is not subject to the presidential pardon power, which Trump has recently used for allies and which some observers think he may try to apply to himself.
As with so many past outrages, Republicans did not condemn. Kevin McCarthy, the party’s leader in the House, told Fox News: “The president’s always been concerned about the integrity of the election, and the president believes that there are things that happened in Georgia that he wants to see accountability for.”
The incident echoed a 2019 call in which Trump tried to strong-arm the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden by withholding military support. That led to impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate but a repeat seems unlikely just two weeks before Trump leaves office.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Trump’s conduct “merits nothing less than a criminal investigation”.
Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, told MSNBC: “It is unprecedented. It is the most consequential attack on American democracy in the history of our country … This is what mafia does … This is beyond outrageous. This is not only impeachable, it is certainly a criminal offence.”
The revelations fuelled anxiety that Trump will stop at nothing to cling to power. All 10 living former secretaries of defense published a joint article in the Washington Post warning that the military should not be used to change the outcome of the election.
The tape also threatened to upend runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate. Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have backed Trump. Party infighting could lead some voters to stay home in protest.
Georgia would not be enough to tilt the election to Trump. Biden won the electoral college 306-232 and the popular vote by more than 7 million. A dozen senators and more than 100 Republicans in the House plan to object when Congress meets to certify the results on Wednesday.
Trump continued to rail against members unwilling to join the effort, tweeting: “The ‘Surrender Caucus’ within the Republican party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective ‘guardians’ of our nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!”
For two months Trump has been claiming his loss to Biden was the result of fraud. Numerous reviews have rejected those claims and dozens of lawsuits have failed.
Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2016 election to Trump, tweeted: “Georgia voters, along with a clear majority of Americans, chose Joe Biden to be their president. Trump can’t change that, no matter how many oaths he breaks.”